by Jeff Zillgitt, USA TODAY Sports
- -Miami Heat forward LeBron James showed his growth in Game 7 of NBA Finals vs. San Antonio Spurs
- -James scored 37 points, most in Finals Game 7 since 1969, en route to second Finals MVP in row
- -Biggest difference in four-time NBA MVP is how comfortable James has become on, off the court
MIAMI - LeBron James ate his a pregame dinner Thursday with close friends and confidants.
Everyone at the table knew the scenario: Beat the San Antonio Spurs in Game 7 of the NBA Finals for the Miami Heat's second consecutive NBA title and put idle chatter to rest. Or lose and spend the summer dealing with another Finals disappointment, plus oodles of criticism.
Everyone at dinner, James most of all, also knew San Antonio's game plan: Keep James out of the lane and let him shoot jump shots.
With a high basketball IQ, James admits he sometimes thinks too much, and his knowledge can be a blessing and a curse.
So at dinner, with the butterflies beginning to roil and the moment of truth hours away, James heard this from his dinner companions: Shoot the ball free and easy.
That's what he did. The Spurs let James have the outside shot, and James made them pay.
James connected on 12 of his 23 shots, including 5-for-10 on three-pointers, scored a game-high 37 points, collected 12 rebounds, had four assists and two steals and led the Heat to a 95-88 victory over the Spurs in Game 7 for Miami's second consecutive championship.
He also won his second consecutive Finals MVP in what was an epic series between two champions loaded with Hall of Famers. And the best player in the world elevated his game when necessary and silenced the non-believers, at least temporarily.
"Hopefully people will leave him alone a little more now," Heat forward Shane Battier said. "He takes a lot of heat, I think undeservedly. He's the best player on the planet. And hopefully now with two titles, he'll get more the benefit of the doubt."
James started out 1-for-5 but then went 11-for-18 and converted all eight of his free throw attempts. He made nine of the 20 jump shots he took.
"I watched film, and my mind started to work," James said. "I said, 'OK, this is how they're going to play me for the whole series.' I looked at all my regular-season stats, and I was one of the best midrange shooters in the game. I shot a career high from the three-point line.
"I just told myself, 'Don't abandon what you've done all year. Don't abandon now because they're going under (screens). Don't force the paint. If it's there, take it. If not, take the jumper.
"The repetition, the practices, the off-season training, no matter how big the stakes are, no matter what's on the line, just go with it. And I was able to do that."
He used both his IQ and his basketball skills.
It's hard to pinpoint James' biggest shot. One of his three three-pointers in his 13-point third quarter suffices. His jump shot with 4:32 left in the fourth quarter giving Miami an 85-79 lead is strong possibility. Certainly his 19-foot jumper putting the Heat ahead 92-88 with 27.9 seconds left ranks right there.
The Heat needed everyone one of his points. James needed to be great in Game 7, and he was.
But this is more than made and missed shots. It's about wild and sky-high, if not unrealistic, expectations. If James doesn't win every season, it's some kind of failure, it seems.
His friend and teammate Dwyane Wade sees through it.
"He'll get a lot less (criticism) this summer," Wade said. "When the season start up again next year, it's on again. It's the ebb and flow, the highs and low of life."
Throughout the playoffs and series by series, James took responsibility for the Heat's losses and found a way to win when absolutely necessary.
He now is averaging 31.9 points, 10.2 rebounds and 6.5 assists in 13 elimination games and has won each of his past five - all since losing to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 Finals, which has emerged as turning point in James' career.
When the Heat were down 3-2 against the Spurs, James delivered a triple-double with 16 points in the fourth quarter of an overtime victory of Game 6. When the Heat needed to win back-to-back games for the first time in a month, James dazzled.
His 37 points were the most in a Game 7 Finals since Los Angeles Lakers great Jerry West scored 42 in 1969. James joins Bill Russell and Michael Jordan as the only players in NBA history to win consecutive regular-season MVPs and championships.
Often after practices, former Heat star Alonzo Mourning walks onto the court and engages James. The two have formed a bond, with Mourning acting as the big brother. Mourning reflected on James growth inside the Heat locker room with the stench of liters and liters of expelled champagne clogging the air.
"I look at where he was three, four years ago and the criticism many of you in this room contributed to, and this is the reward for going through that," Mourning told USA TODAY Sports. "This is the reward for making all the sacrifices necessary to get better. This is the reward that allow you to get better. This never gets old. He understands exactly what it takes to win."
James has earned the admiration and trust of the greats, including Ray Allen, who wore Oakley skiing goggles to protect his eyes from the sting of alcohol.
James and Allen also formed a bond this season. Once fierce competitors on opposite teams, they have a mutual respect. The competition continued once they were teammates whether it was to see who finished first in sprints or who won at a game of cards.
James praised Allen after Allen saved the season in Game 6 with an amazing game-tying three-pointer at the end of regulation. Allen returned the kind words.
"It's his ability to want to get better and his ability to learn, his ability to adapt to situation," Allen said. "He wanted to learn everything I knew. He always asked me questions about why I do certain things and what they meant. A player of his caliber, I had not been used to that. I'd like to say we competed toe-to-toe a lot this year - off the court, on the court."
Heat President Pat Riley risked a lot to bring James to Miami, and for the better part of Game 6 - even with 30 seconds left - it looked like the Heat might enter another offseason with disappointment hanging as thick as the South Florida summer heat.
Riley entertained news reporters in the hallway out Miami's locker room. He brought Heat senior vice president of basketball operations Andy Elisburg into the conversation. Elisburg is responsible for clearing the cap space that made it possible to construct a roster with James, Wade and Chris Bosh.
The two share an appreciation of Bruce Springsteen, and Riley asked where Springsteen had played last played.
"Is anybody alive out there in Coventry, England," Riley said, referencing a Springsteen line and the last place The Boss played live.
Riley really didn't care about questions. He was living in the moment. Then the questioning turned to thoughts on James.
"He's gotten better internally," Riley said. "He's genuine about his approach to the game. Sometimes I stay at an arm's distance because I'm too intense, and he needs to be loose and ready to play. The biggest improvement in LeBron is that he has taken the leadership role above and beyond anybody else, and his performance and leadership and putting everything on his shoulders is second to none, ever."
This whole discussion about James' legacy now is silly. No one knows what a player's legacy is until a career is over. James slowly came to terms with that, and is a much better player for it. He's better in the interview room, too.
"Last year when I was sitting up here, with my first championship, I said it was the toughest thing I had ever done," James said. "This year I'll tell (myself from) last year he's absolutely wrong. This was the toughest championship right here, between the two.
"We were down (after) every odd game. We were down 1-0. We tied it. We were able to take a lead, but then we were down. ... We were scratching for our lives in Game 6 down five with 28 seconds to go.
"To be able to win that game and force a Game 7 is a true testament of our, I guess, perseverance. And us being able to handle adversity throughout everything. It meant a lot for us to be able to do that and force a Game 7 and being able to close out at home."
This is James' life: Moments after winning, he was asked, "What's next?"
"I came here to win championships," James said. "To be able to go back to back (and) two championships in three years so far, it's the ultimate. I don't want to think about next year right now and what our possibilities are next year. ... Please don't ask me about my offseason training right now."
James needs time off mentally and physically. He has played in three consecutive NBA Finals in addition to an Olympic gold medal in 2012.
"As much as I love working out and as much as I love getting better, at this point I think the smartest thing to do is to rest my body," James said. "Give my body a break. I think that's the smartest thing."
What's really next for James? Nuptials.
"I got a wedding coming up with my beautiful fiancée (Savannah Brinson)," James said. "And it will be an unbelievable wedding now that we've won, instead of losing. I might have called it off if we lost."
James is joking. His growth on and the off the court, as Riley mentioned, is impressive. He has come to terms with expectations and accepts the outcome, win or lose, as long as he is satisfied with his performance.
Riley and Mourning know James didn't have that in him two, three seasons ago.
He does now, and it is beautiful to watch.
"Every single day in practice, every single day in film sessions, I know the grass isn't always green and there's going to be trials and tribulations," James said. "But hopefully I can continue to be the leader for my teammates.
"And then lastly, I want to be, if not the greatest, one of the greatest to ever play this game. And I will continue to work for that, and continue to put on this uniform and be the best I can be every night."